The Es­cape Artists

Flight Journal - - CLASSICS - by Neal Bas­comb Gerry Yar­rish

(Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 336 pages, $28.00)

When you pick up a book about pi­lots of World War I, you usu­ally en­joy the aerial an­tics and dog­fight­ing ad­ven­tures of the fly­boys of the era. But much of the story of­ten took place af­ter the dog­fights had con­cluded. Al­lied sol­diers from the frozen trenches as well as pi­lots re­moved from the flak-filled skies would some­times find them­selves im­pris­oned in Ger­many’s harsh pris­oner-of-war camps, of­ten en­dur­ing hor­rific con­di­tions. The Es­cape Artists, by Neal Bas­comb, is a grip­ping ac­count of the Al­lied pris­on­ers of “Hell­min­den” (i.e., Holz­min­den) camp des­per­ate to break out in or­der to re­turn to the aerial fight. Draw­ing from in­for­ma­tion he ac­quired from never-be­fore-seen mem­oirs and per­sonal let­ters, the author pro­duces a com­pelling story of a band of dare­devil pi­lots who suc­cess­fully pulled off the great­est pri­son break of the Great War.

This elab­o­rate es­cape plan, led by ace pi­lot Capt. David Gray of the Royal Fly­ing Corps (RFC), in­volves risky tun­nel engineering, dis­guises, forged doc­u­ments, fake walls and hid­den spa­ces within the sol­diers’ bar­racks, along with an aboveav­er­age amount of re­solve and brav­ery among the sol­diers. Once past the watch­tow­ers and con­stant pa­trols, this band of half-starved pri­son mates (a dozen in all) faced a dan­ger­ous 150-mile trek through en­emy-oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory to their ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion: free Hol­land.

The tale be­gins with ac­counts of how the pi­lots were cap­tured, fol­lowed by de­scrip­tions of sev­eral ex­cit­ing though ill-fated es­cape at­tempts and the trans­fer of pris­on­ers from one camp to an­other. The pi­lots’ in­di­vid­ual sto­ries con­verge in the town of Holz­min­den and the new pri­son camp in­tended to hold the most trou­ble­some of pris­on­ers. The pris­on­ers con­tinue their ef­forts to es­cape their con­fine­ment—all ex­cept David Gray, who, af­ter much time in soli­tary con­fine­ment, does not in­volve him­self in the var­i­ous schemes. He has re­solved to have in place a fool­proof plan be­fore mak­ing any fur­ther at­tempts at es­cape.

Plans, how­ever, sel­dom go as in­tended. Sur­prise in­spec­tions and searches, en­hanced se­cu­rity, and the ad­di­tion of pri­son guards in­crease the chances that their es­cape plots will be dis­cov­ered. The pris­on­ers at Holz­min­den were in­deed jail­break­ers of the first or­der, and their plans are elab­o­rate and well thought out. But the trans­fer of pris­on­ers to other ar­eas weaken the es­cape team. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for the tun­nel project ul­ti­mately falls to David Gray, who be­comes, in essence, the “fa­ther of the tun­nel.”

The lengths to which Gray and his men go to ac­quire the needed sup­plies for the 150-mile trek to free­dom is im­pres­sive. Prop­erly cho­sen bribes of the ill-treated pri­son guards and or­der­lies prove use­ful when it comes to sup­ply­ing the es­cape team. Gray’s own ex­pe­ri­ence had taught him well of what would and would not work. He thinks and re­thinks his plans, try­ing to iden­tify the rea­son pre­vi­ous at­tempts had failed and which cur­rent strat­egy would be the safest. The tun­nel is fi­nally long enough for the team to exit into the ad­ja­cent rye fields be­yond the wire fence, and the men di­vide into small groups, each with its own well­con­cocted plan for its run to the bor­der. Fi­nally comes the break­out, and the pace of the story in­creases un­til its cli­max.

It was re­fresh­ing to read a tale set dur­ing the Great War, as op­posed to the more pop­u­lar WW II era. It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that, at this time, there were no sur­vival cour­ses or train­ing for the mil­i­tary. It was ex­pe­ri­ences like these that led to im­proved train­ing of fu­ture sol­diers and air­men, pre­par­ing them for the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing caught be­hind en­emy lines and be­com­ing pris­on­ers of war.—

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